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Syria crisis: Assad vows to ‘annihilate terrorists’ – live updates

• Dozens killed in new alleged massacre in Douma

• Russia proposes changes to Annan’s transition plan
• Crowds gather in Tahrir Square ahead of speech by Morsi
4.42pm: Syria: Senior officials meeting in Geneva have failed to resolve differences over Kofi Annan’s text on Syria – which means the decision will be left for foreign ministers tomorrow, Reuters reports citing diplomatic sources.

4.25pm: Egypt: President-elect Mohamed Morsi is due to give his speech in Tahrir Square in about 35 minutes. Sherine Tadros of al-Jazeera has posted a photo of the enormous crowds:
3.32pm: Syria: Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (pictured) said he regretted that Iran has been excluded from Kofi Annan’s crisis talks on Syria this weekend.

In a statement on the foreign ministry’s website, Lavrov said Iran was excluded because of “insurmountable objections” from the US. Saudi Arabia has also been excluded from the talks, in a move that was thought to be aimed at placating Russian objections. But Lavrov said he also regretted that Saudis would not be taking part.

It described the convening of the meeting as a positive move and hoped mechanisms would be agreed on a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops and rebel forces from cities which could create a “favourable atmosphere” for a political transition.

3.23pm: Bahrain: The interior minister, Lieutenant-General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, has been visiting Britain and – as always – British officials have been full of praise for the tiny Gulf kingdom. At least, they have if you believe the Bahraini government’s account of the minister’s visit.

Lord Howell, minister of state at the foreign office, allegedly described Bahrain as “a model country” and “the first country to pursue democracy in the region”. For good measure, he allegedly made clear that the situation in Bahrain should not be linked to “the so-called Arab Spring”.

Nigel Evans MP, a deputy speaker of the Commons, and Baroness Scotland, the attorney-general, also allegedly enthused about the “reforms” introduced by King Hamad.

These, and other overwhelmingly favourable comments, appear in a report of the minister’s visit posted in Arabic on the Bahraini police website.

Bahrain’s government has achieved some notoriety for making up or distorting quotes to give an impression of international approval for its policies. Previous victims have included Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Amnesty International.

3.11pm: Syria: Ameer, a resident in the northern Damascus suburb of Barzeh, describes witnessing a helicopter gunship firing close to the capital for the first time.

Speaking to the Guardian via Skype he said:

I saw a military helicopter over the farm areas of Barzeh and nearly over Harasta. It was on a high altitude. Once it reached that position it fired missiles. Three missiles each time. One time it fire five missiles. It was on Harasta and the farm areas of Barzeh.

He said videos of the incident tallied with what he saw at the time.
Ameer added: “There were couple of videos uploaded from Harasta and Douma. That is exactly what I saw.”

There are no reports [of casualties]. This is the first time I’ve seen a helicopter firing in this area. Here in Barzeh we hear lots of explosions from the eastern suburbs of Harasta, Douma, Arbeen. But this is the first time I’ve seen by my eyes a helicopter launching missiles.

I was with my father and mother. Mum was very frightened. These sounds were very loud. She suggested we go down to the shelter in my building. [But] it wasn’t firing at us.

It was nearly three or four kilometres from me.

I feel that what I am doing is not enough and my activity on the internet is not enough. We should do something more than that. Like fighting back.

Asked how he could fight back he said: “That’s the problem that’s why I feel useless.”

We are planning to published audio of the interview, disguising Ameer’s voice, later today.

Earlier this week a UN report [pdf] said the use of helicopter gunships was increasing the militarisation of the conflict.

It said: “Helicopter gunships and artillery have been used in the shelling of entire neighbourhoods believed to be anti-Government, even during the presence of observers”.

2.06pm: Syria: US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has backing from an usual quarter – Kafranbel in Syria’s north-west Idlib province.
The latest message from the banner makers in the town calls for an early election in the US, and claims the Obama is not doing well.
This is not the first time placards in the town have expressed support for the Republicans. Last year a Kafranbel banner read “we miss Bush’s audacity”.

Romney has criticised Obama for failing to stand up to Russian backing for Assad.

Last week he told Fox News: “This president has not communicated strength and resolve around the world. We need to make it very clear to Moscow that their interference in Syria poses a grave threat to the national interests of America, and to free people around the world.”
1.42pm: Here’s a roundup of developments so far today:
• Activists say dozens have been killed in attacks on opposition strongholds near Damascus. Most of the casualties are said to have been in the town of Douma, where video posted on the internet purports to show the shrouded bodies of up 20 members of the same family said to have been stabbed by government militia.

• Russia has proposed changes to Kofi Annan’s plan for a unity government in Syria, according to Reuters. Annan’s action group on Syria is holding preliminary discussions in Geneva today, ahead of the main meeting tomorrow.

• Video has emerged showing two senior officers captured by the Free Syrian Army. One of the men was reported to have been abducted by an armed gang, according to state media. Another video claimed to show a brigadier general announcing his defection to the opposition.

• President Assad, in an interview with Iranian TV, said his country has a duty to “annihilate terrorists” and that Syria won’t accept outside interference even from its allies.

• Efforts to evacuate civilians and wounded from Homs failed again when a rescue team could not enter affected areas, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in its latest update.


• Large crowds have gathered in Tahrir Square where president-elect Mohamed Morsi is due to make a speech in a few hours. After much confusion about Morsi’s swearing-in ceremony, the official news agency says it will take place tomorrow morning, before the supreme constitutional court.

• Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, will keep his post as defence minister in a new cabinet to be formed by president-elect Mohamed Morsi, a member of the military council has said.

12.56pm: Egypt: Large crowds have gathered once again in Tahrir Square to await a speech by president-elect Mohamed Morsi. The video below gives a aerial view of the square during today’s midday prayers.
Morsi’s speech is still several hours away, though. In remarks quoted by AP, his spokesman, Yasser Ali, said the president-elect wants to stand with the thousands who have been in the square for over a week to express concern about the power grabs.

“He wants to confirm that people are the source of his power,” Ali said. “He wants to show unity with his people over issues of the transition, which is now ending.”

12.47pm: Syria: Ameer, a resident in the northern Damascus suburb of Barzeh, reported seeing a helicopter gunship attacking an area north of the capital.

He tweeted:

There’s a military helicopter flying and I can see it shelling al-Qaboun or Harasta. Up to this moment it shelled six missiles. #Damascus

Earlier activists posted footage of the wreckage of an attack helicopter that had been bought down in the north-western province of Idlib.
It was purported to have been filmed in the countryside around Aleppo.

12.26pm: Syria: Reuters has more on the latest alleged massacre in Douma. It says the members of two entire families (not one as mentioned earlier) were killed.

Video published on YouTube showed rows of shrouded bodies lining what activists said was a street in Douma. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 41 people had died in the city, while other activists placed the toll at 59 or higher.

“Douma, the morning of June 29, 2012. This is the massacre committed against the people of Douma. God is our saviour. Two whole families are here (among the dead) … God help us,” said the man filming the scene.

One man held up the limp body of a girl, her pink blouse drenched in blood.

“This is another massacre of the massacres by Assad and his secret police,” he said. “This is another massacre of the massacres by the international community, of all the great nations that have conspired against our people.”

Douma has been under siege for weeks by security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Activists say rockets have been raining down on the city for days amid heavy fighting between rebels and government forces. Video showed homes whose roofs had caved in and clouds of dust rising from crumbling buildings.

12.10pm: Syria: Iran’s Press TV has published a fuller account of the Assad interview.

Here are some extracts

What took place in Libya is not the model to settle Syria [crisis] and no plan or model except a ‘national model’ will work in Syria.

The West expresses support for the Annan plan on the one hand, while on the other hand, they seek a plan to overthrow [the government]. This is the same [approach of] double standards and political hypocrisy.

If al-Qaida attacks a country that the US doesn’t like, they are good, but if they attack the interests of Americans or their allies in a certain region, then they are bad; this is the American logic.

11.33am: Syria: A local activist group in Douma has another unverified account of what it claims was massacre in the town.

The Syrian Revolution Coordination Committee of Douma City said a family of 10 was killed after “fierce shelling”.

After continual shelling that lasted for hours, the regime troops perpetrated a massacre by killing a family of 10 while looking for a shelter. The total number of victims is 51 and more than one hundred civilians were injured. Some peaceful citizens were extra judicially executed by Assad’s forces in their homes.

The regime army stormed the city in the early morning amid intensive gunfire followed by mortar shelling. The city was in a state of real war in which all kinds of weaponry were used. Helicopters hovered at low altitude and shelled the resident’s houses randomly. Consequently, dozens of houses got burned and others were destroyed … Many families were in a state of horror inside shelters and had to keep there because of the heavy shelling.

Scores of horrific videos purport to show the victims of the alleged attack. They are impossible to corroborate.

11.05am: Syria: Activists say dozens of people have been killed in attacks on opposition strongholds near Damascus. Most of the casualties were in the town of Douma, where local activists posted video purporting to show the shrouded bodies of up 20 members of the same family said to have stabbed by government militia [warning: graphic content].

The Local Coordination Committees and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists say at least 40 people died in shelling in the area. At least two more were killed Friday morning.

10.47am: Syria: Earlier we mentioned that video purporting to show the capture of Brigadier General Mounir Shleibi and Major General Faraj al-Maqt could not be independently verified (see 9.27am).

A reader has pointed out that state media reported the abduction of Faraj al-Maqt, after clashes in the suburbs of Damascus. It gives his rank as lieutenant general.

10.32am: Syria: The opposition blog the Hama echo, has a collection of 15 videos purporting to show the defection of brigadier generals over the last few months.
10.27am: Libya: The Carter Centre – founded by former US president Jimmy Carter – is sending observer teams to Libya to monitor the elections scheduled for 7 July, the Tripoli Post reports.

At the invitation of the High National Elections Commission (HNEC), they will observe the electoral process – though not throughout the entire country.

In light of security considerations, which prevent deployment of observers in some areas of the country and which restrict their movements in others, the centre’s mission will be limited in nature and will not offer a comprehensive assessment of the electoral process.

However, there are encouraging signs regarding women’s participation in the poll:

In total, there are 625 women standing in the July 7 elections, 540 of whom represent political parties; 85 are standing as independent candidates. The electoral commission states that 80% of eligible voters have registered, totalling 2.7 million people. Of these, 45% are female.

10.18am: Syria: The Syrian government has deployed around 170 tanks near the Turkish border, a commander from the Free Syrian Army told Reuters.

“The tanks are now at the infantry school. They’re either preparing to move to the border to counter the Turkish deployment or attack the rebellious (Syrian) towns and villages in and around the border zone north of Aleppo,” Sheikh told Reuters by telephone from the border.

He said the tanks were mostly from the 17th Mechanised Division.

Meanwhile, a video has emerged purporting to show a brigadier general responsible for a tank division, announcing his defection, according to journalist Zaid Benjamin:
10.00am: Egypt: Mohamed Morsi will be sworn in as president of Egypt at the supreme constitutional court on Saturday morning, the official news agency has announced.

The swearing-in procedure became a matter of dispute because the court had earlier dissolved parliament (where an Egyptian president would normally be sworn in). There were objections that by agreeing to hold the ceremony at the court, Morsi would be accepting the court’s controversial decision to dissolve parliament.

Morsi is due to deliver his first presidential speech at Cairo university after the ceremony, Ahram Online reports.

He is also expected to address a rally in Tahrir Square today, after Friday prayers.
Yesterday, Morsi met leaders of the Egyptian Islamic movement at the presidential palace.

9.50am: Syria: Russia has proposed changes to Kofi Annan’s plan for a unity government, according to Reuters.

International mediator Kofi Annan said on Friday he was “optimistic” that ministerial crisis talks on Syria being held on Saturday would produce an acceptable outcome.

“I think we are going to have a good meeting tomorrow (Saturday). I am optimistic,” Annan told Reuters TV in Geneva after Russia proposed changes to his plan for a national unity government. The talks would end “with an acceptable result”, he said.

His spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said: “The talks are on course and the preparatory meeting is going ahead this morning (Friday).”

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are due to meet in St Petersburg today in a bid to iron out deep differences over the transition plan, according to AP.

US officials are adamant that the plan will not allow President Assad to remain in power at the top of the transitional government, but Russia insists that outsiders cannot dictate the ultimate solution or the composition of the interim administration.

Annan’s plan would allow some members of the current regime to stay in place but would exclude those deemed to be counterproductive or destructive to the transition process, which would be Syrian-led, according to diplomats familiar with the proposal. It does not explicitly bar Assad, but the US and other western powers who will participate in the conference in Geneva say that is implicit.

The difference in interpretation could prove its unraveling and Clinton hopes to press Lavrov on the point at their meeting and over dinner following a gathering of Asia-Pacific foreign ministers that Lavrov is hosting in St Petersburg.

9.27am: Syria: Our favourite reader, Brown Moses, has been going through a video purporting to show two senior military commanders captured by the Free Syrian Army.

Brigadier General Mounir Shleibi of the Palestine Intelligence Branch and Major General Faraj al-Maqt of Syrian Central Command.

Both men had black eyes. The video can’t be independently verified, but as Brown Moses notes “the makers of the video have gone to great lengths to ensure both men can be clearly identified, filming close up of their ID documents.”

Earlier this week state media claimed that a man had been abducted and portrayed as a defected colonel by an armed group.
In March Human Rights Watch accused armed opposition groups of committing a series of human rights abuses including kidnap and torture.

8.59am: Syria: While Robert Fisk reckons Assad could have another two years, Reem Maghribi, former editorial director of Syria’s only English-language daily, predicts that he will fall within six to 12 months.

She told Bloggingheads TV that the regime will be removed without outside help. The Syrian opposition want arms from the outside world, but not military intervention, she pointed out.She said Nato air strikes would be impractical because potential military targets are so close to civilian areas. “The opposition can do it on their own slowly but surely,” she said.
• Kofi Annan’s action group on Syria is to gather in Geneva today as a leaked copy of his principles for political transition were published. A copy of the document, published by UN Report, does not mention Bashar al-Assad but hints at his removal. It says:

The government of national unity would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.

• President Assad said his country has a duty to “annihilate terrorists” and that Syria won’t accept outside interference even from its allies. In an interview recorded with Iranian TV he said: “The responsibility of the Syrian government is to protect all of our residents. You have a responsibility to annihilate terrorists in any corner of the country.”And in what appeared to be a reference to Russia he said: “We will not accept any non-Syrian, non-national model, whether it comes from big countries or friendly countries. No one knows how to solve Syria’s problems as well as we do.”

• Hopes of a political solution to the Syrian crisis suffered a fresh blow when Russia insisted it would not endorse an internationally backed plan for a political transition that would require President Bashar al-Assad to surrender power. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in Moscow: “We will not support and cannot support any meddling from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of the president of the country, Bashar al-Assad.”

• The US and Russia are putting together a deal to allow Assad to remain leader for at least two more years, because of anxiety about oil routes via Syria, a source told the Independent’s Robert Fisk. The unnamed source, said to be close to the negotiations, is quoted as saying:

We are talking about two fundamental oil routes to the West – one from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Jordan and Syria and the Mediterranean to Europe, another from Iran via Shia southern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean and Europe. This is what matters. This is why they will be prepared to let Assad last another two years. They would be perfectly content with that. And Russia will have a place in the new Syria.

• But a deal to oust Assad would suit US and Russian interests, writes Simon Tisdall.

Obama, facing a tough re-election battle this autumn and with his domestic record assailed from all sides, could use a big international win…

It would defuse criticism from American interventionists about US inaction. It would also help secure the stability of Iraq, on which so much American blood and treasure was spent in the past decade. It would prevent the spooked, volatile leaders of Turkey, a valued Nato ally, sliding into some kind of regional conflict.

Russia’s interest dictates a settlement in Syria that sustains its influence on its Arab ally, keeps its Mediterranean port facilities open, and maintains its business and arms sales links. As Assad loses ground to the opposition, these interests appear threatened ….

The scene is set for a Clinton-Lavrov meeting that could still ring the death knell for the Assad regime. Maybe they can pull it off; maybe they cannot. Whatever the outcome, democrats will note that Obama and Putin have something else in common: a deep wariness of the politically unquantifiable Syrian opposition and a pragmatic disinterest in the wishes of the Syrian people.

This backroom deal, if it happens, has little to do with building a democratic Syria. It has everything to do with fixing a problem that is upsetting the world order as decreed from Washington and Moscow.

• No one can imagine how a transition would work, argues Syrian watcher Joshua Landis. Writing on his blog Syria Comment he says:

We are unlikely to see any big breakthroughs anytime soon. Russian authorities must be getting nervous about Assad’s strategy and staying power – all the same what can they do but try to create avenues for a Syrian soft landing? Damascus is unlikely to take their nudging seriously for some time. The high-powered conference is probably meaningless at this point, as Russia will most likely continue to insist on “loyal opposition” joining in a transitional government packed with Assad loyalists – a non-starter for both Assad and opposition figures.

• Efforts to evacuate civilians and wounded from Homs failed again when a rescue team could not enter affected areas, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in its latest update. Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of ICRC operations for the Near and Middle East, said an agreed pause in the fighting failed to be met.


• Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council, will keep his post as defence minister in a new cabinet to be formed by president-elect Mohamed Morsi, a member of the military council has said. Major-General Mohamed Assar said: “What is wrong with that? He is the head of the supreme council of the armed forces, the defence minister and the commander of the armed forces.”


• Prominent human rights activist, Zainab al-Khawaja, has been injured after police fired a tear-gas canister at her leg, according to witnesses. She was fired on at close range, said Yousef al-Muhafedha, a member of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.


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